Thursday, June 26, 2014

Will Transparency Take Away Your Job?

Many years ago my daughter did not speak.

She was three years old and I took her to the town pediatrician - these were the days before the Internet - and he told me, the way a revered, patrician, paternalistic doctor has talked to me many times, as though I were ignorant - "Mrs. Blumenthal, she's fine. Lots of kids don't talk before they're three. My own kids didn't talk until late."

We moved to the Washington, D.C. area soon after and I took her to a local doctor who I'm pretty sure has made every issue of Washingtonian since the magazine first started coming out. He is an ear, nose and throat doctor with a hearing problem. There is a gigantic fish tank, with large beautiful fish, at the entrance. A large framed prayer hangs over it, something about "helping everyone who walks through these doors."

The doctor is not patrician, or pedantic, or paternalistic or patronizing. He is elderly and kind and he takes one look at my daughter and rushes her to the emergency room.

It's midnight and I'm sitting there, sitting over her bed. I'm working in the hospital just after her surgery, because I work all the time, because raising kids is a full-time job and we need a dual income, and G-d has blessed me with income that I can earn long-distance between D.C. and Madison Avenue. And so I work.

The pressure is on me to generate a large amount of work. My boss knows when I've produced it. There is nothing for me to hide - it's either done or it isn't, and I am paid handsomely by the piece.

As far as the doctor goes, I had no way of knowing whether he was right or the other one was. Equally their opinions held sway in my mind, because there was no Internet to check them against. Had I had the Internet I would have gone to Google and looked up "When is it normal for a kid to start speaking?" or some such thing and gotten some answers.

Had I had the Internet, I would have "fired" (stopped going to) the first doctor and given him a bad review on Yelp, or whatever review sites there are for doctors specifically - - and given a five-star review to the second. I'd rate them both on Angie's List.

So here's another story. When I started working for the government one of my big ideas was to have employees rate the articles in the employee newsletter. I tend to repeat my stories, so if you've heard this one already, forgive me, but I just love it. 

What happened was, they hired me for internal communications, and so of course I ended up with the employee newsletter, which of course nobody wanted to write for and we had to drag them kicking and screaming to do the most basic and boring articles. You know these kinds of articles, they're the ones you like to laugh at, like "A Tree Grows In Brooklyn" by another title, "We Went To A Meeting" and stuff like that.

So we used to lay it out one way, for print, and I said to my boss, something like "Gee wouldn't it be great to have the newsletter online." And "Oh sure." was the response, because who is going to say no to that?

Quietly I program it to show articles with anywhere from one-star to four-star ratings in Lotus Notes - I don't even remember what Lotus Notes is, only that I used it and liked it a lot. And I remember the look on my boss's face, my boss who was maybe two years from retirement. "Oh no you don't!" and she shut it down right quick.

If her face could talk it would have said, "Are you kidding? We're not going to rate the articles! Nobody would ever write for us again."

But there was another meeting at that agency, and they did let me make it visible to all employees. It was a town hall on the subject of reorganization, and the Chief of Staff at the time let me do it. Is it surprising that this person used to say things like, "People worry that if they share information the pie will get smaller. But actually the pie just gets bigger." 

He understood that transparency leads to more productivity, and more productivity benefits everyone. You cannot get screwed if you focus on contributing your best.

Last story. At that agency I was the intrepid reporter who covered a very special event. The subject was predatory lending, and the speaker was one Elizabeth Warren. I confess to being a mostly ignorant person when it comes to detailed subject matter, but my instincts and emotions are sharp and finely tuned. And when she walked into the room and started talking, it was electrifying. 

Warren urged us to stop the national banks from deceptive practices in marketing tricky, too-good-to-be-true credit products to consumers. And the audience, a room full of loan examiners (you may think this is a snooze but consider that loans are what pay for houses and cars) did not make a move or a sound.

Years later Warren's brainchild, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, came into being and - judging at least from the people who show up at various federal communications meetings - it is staffed by some of the smartest people in town. What Warren managed to achieve, that few get to do in their lifetimes, is quiet but revolutionary social change. For the first time in my lifetime that I can recall, a government agency was specifically established as an activist tool on behalf of the citizenry, to go behind the curtain and blow away the smoke and mirrors and show people the consequences of living on cheap promises and bad credit.

Transparency won't take away your job, if you want to do a good job. Good workers will always find something to do. It will take away your job if you're a liar, and you're trying to run from or hide the truth.

* All opinions my own.